The U.S. economy seems poised for revival, but “help wanted” signs that keep popping up in windows across the country tell a different story. With millions of positions going unfilled each month, it’s clear that our recovery won’t work unless it works for everyone.
And yet for decades, an entire population of our labor force has been overlooked and undermined: the 77 million Americans with a criminal record.
Because of stigma and misguided laws from the “tough-on-crime” era, job seekers with criminal records — no matter how old the offense — face numerous hurdles to being hired. Job applications often ask candidates to disclose convictions before an interview, effectively halving the likelihood of a callback from a hiring manager. States have imposed tens of thousands of restrictions on licenses for individuals with felonies and misdemeanors, barring those with convictions from profitable trades such as plumbing, real estate and cosmetology. And it was only in September that incarcerated individuals in California who volunteer as firefighters became eligible to fight fires professionally upon leaving prison.
These restrictions contribute to a significant labor crisis: Nearly half of all formerly incarcerated individuals experience unemployment during the full first year following their release. And these challenges are even more acute during the pandemic, with total employment still down from where it was in February 2020. One study from a criminal justice scholar at the University of Central Florida suggests that 30 to 50 percent of people on parole or probation have lost a job during the pandemic.
Beyond hindering our recovery, these barriers also fly in the face of employer needs. Research from the Society for Human Resource Management shows that formerly incarcerated hires achieve the same or better scores on job performance, dependability, promotion potential and retention. While many employers say they are open to hiring people with a record, outdated laws and discriminatory hiring practices remain prevalent, keeping millions of Americans from securing jobs — while denying our economy a swift recovery.
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